The legendary Chicago White Sox hitting coach Charley Lau once observed: “There are two theories on hitting the knuckleball. Unfortunately, neither of them works.” Donald Trump could identify. He has two theories on how to eliminate the potential nuclear danger posed by hostile rogue regimes, and neither of them is succeeding.
Trump apparently has never read “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” He doesn’t believe a policy can be too hot or too cold. He prefers to take things to their logical, or illogical, extreme.
He’s sought to warm relations with North Korea up to the temperature of a Sandals Resort hot tub, even as he has set out to cover the Islamic rulers of Iran with a massive layer of glacial ice. It’s a perfect test of two radically different strategies — radically different from each other and from what his predecessors did.
It’s also a perfect illustration of his willingness to ignore established norms and longstanding alliances. Trump won the presidency shoveling scorn on the prescriptions of experts, and in the realm of foreign policy, he has stuck to that approach.
His trip to Japan was a chance for the president to reaffirm his devotion to Kim Jong Un. A few months after their summit in Singapore last year, he confessed: “He wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters. We fell in love.”
He took Kim’s flattery as proof that his previous policy of threatening North Korea with incineration had worked. But it looks as though he got played like a gullible heiress. Kim traded nothing of value to get the long-prized meeting with the U.S. president, and he offered minimal concessions when they met.
He made a vague commitment to “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” turned over the remains of some American soldiers killed in the Korean War, and halted nuclear and missile tests. But Kim has continued building nuclear warheads, as well as missiles that could carry them.
When the North Koreans resumed testing missiles in May, Trump chose to indulge them. He tweeted that the tests “disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me. I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me.” Those “others” include Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was hosting Trump at the time and did not share his complacency.
Trump’s attitude exemplifies the sort of naive appeasement that the administration accused Barack Obama of carrying out when he signed a nuclear deal with Iran. Trump made it clear from the start that he had no use for the accord, and last year he abandoned it, over the objections of the other signatories (Britain, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia and China).
His objections were that it didn’t permanently prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, didn’t stop Iran from supporting terrorist groups or making trouble in neighboring countries, and didn’t keep it from building missiles. But it’s a strange policy to say that because some of the restrictions on Iran last only 10 or 15 years, the solution is to remove them now. Just because a medicine won’t prevent a heart attack is no reason not to take it to treat your diabetes.
Trump claimed that by renouncing the deal and tightening economic sanctions, he would force the Iranians to accept a better deal. But the administration has laid down a list of stiff conditions they would have to accept before talks could even begin — which is what you would do if you had no desire to negotiate.
Tehran shows no sign of altering its behavior in response. Why would it? His two chief foreign policy advisers, national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both supported regime change before going to work for Trump. The Iranian government may reasonably conclude that nothing it can do will satisfy the administration.
The president has used Iran as a foil for his tough-guy act, warning, “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.” But so far, he hasn’t gotten his way.
What happens when the tough guy does his worst and his adversary doesn’t submit? It’s not clear Trump has a plan for that contingency — any more than he knows how to respond if the North Koreans refuse to give up their nukes.
He is discovering that bluster and bombast don’t work, and craven appeasement doesn’t work. Something in between might be just right.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapmanand read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
IMAGE: President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un participate in a signing ceremony during a meeting on Sentosa Island, Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in Singapore. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)